Follow these steps for great meetings

Gale Mote/Tree Full of Owls

If you have ever facilitated a meeting or strategic planning session where it was essential for a group of people to openly participate, gather information and make a decision that all could support, you recognize that herding cats may be a simpler task.

Recently, I attended a workshop presented by Michael Wilkinson, certified master facilitator and author of the book The Secrets of Facilitation: The S.M.A.R.T. Guide to Getting Results with Groups. His passion was compelling, the insights practical and so far, my results have been awesome. Here are five key lessons I have already applied with great success.

First, when you ask a question, frame it so that participants begin to imagine the answers in their minds. Participation increases with faster response rates – people will be raising their hands, excited to share their feedback.

As an example, what if you were facilitating a focus group and wanted to gather ideas on the recent decline in morale within your department. You could ask the question “What do you think is contributing to the drop in morale in our department?” This is what Mr. Wilkinson refers to as a Type A question – you simply ask what you want to know.

Here is a Type B question “Think about your last month at work. When were the times when you felt drained and tired?  Were there any times when you felt like you had lost your enthusiasm for the work and your colleagues? Tell me about those times – what was contributing to the negativity and despair?” Then follow it with the direct question, “What do you think is contributing to the drop in morale in our department?”

As a helpful hint, great starting questions (Type B) begin with words like “imagine” “consider” or “think about.”  Most people are visual learners who need time and space to formulate their thoughts and ideas. When you ask a great starting question, the rest of the session flows much easier.

Proper planning and preparation is my second “a ha.” When planning a facilitated session, it is important to know the purpose or key objectives along with the desired outcome. What is the deliverable we want to have at the end of the meeting – is it a list, an agreement or an action plan? The facilitator and the sponsor need to mutually define success. Without a clear goal, it is impossible to facilitate the session toward productive and constructive outcomes.

A great opening to a facilitated session was my third and probably the most important lesson for me. It sets the tone for the entire meeting. In his book, Mr. Wilkinson suggests that your opening should do four key things: inform, excite, empower and involve.

Another great facilitation tip is to know what and how much to record from meeting discussions. Decisions, actions, outstanding issues and relevant analysis are the four items recommended by S.M.A.R.T. facilitators.  Always have a flip chart to record any decisions made during the session. Another holding place should be for actions that need to be taken outside of the meeting at a later date with clarity around who will do what by when. This action list should be published within twenty four hours of the meeting.

A “parking lot” is good for items brought up during the meeting that are important and not relevant to the topic or agenda item being discussed. Always be sure to review every parking lot issue at the end of the meeting and ask, “Have we covered it?” “Do we need to?” “Do we need to now?”  If the answer is yes, set a time limit and facilitate the discussion. If the answer is no, move the issue to the actions list.

It is important not to tie names to specific comments documented for input and ideas. The goal is for the group to have ownership of the feedback, input and recommendations. Keeping it anonymous, other than specific action items, helps to ensure people feel safe participating openly and speaking their mind.

My last key learning point was how to keep the group focused during the meeting. The attention span of the human adult is less than 10 minutes. A great technique is use what the author calls a “checkpoint” as you transition from one agenda item to the next.  A checkpoint is simply review, preview and big view. Review quickly what has been done thus far, describe briefly what the group is about to do and explain how the next agenda item fits into the bigger picture of the meeting purpose.

If you properly prepare for your facilitated session, ensure it has a great opening, document discussions properly, keep conversations focused and ask the right questions, I am confident your next meeting will yield the same positive results as mine.


Gale Mote is a trainer, organizational development catalyst and coach in Cedar Rapids. Contact her at